In November 2010, Guggenheim Capital, LLC, a financial services and investment management holding company which traces its roots to the Guggenheim family, and its subsidiary Guggenheim Partners, LLC, brought a civil action in Manhattan federal court against Catarina Pietra Toumei, David Birnbaum, Vladimir Zuravel, and others. Guggenheim Capital, LLC et al v. Catarina Pietra Toumei et al (SDNY, November 22, 2010, 2010CV08830) . The Complaint is quite the read and filled with intriguing allegations about an impressive fraud. Apparently, the Court was also impressed because it granted an injunction preventing the further use of the Guggenheim trademarks without permission. That case is still pending.
No Longer A Civil Matter
A few months after the filing of the civil complaint, a federal Criminal Complaint was unsealed on January 31, 2011, against Toumei, 45; Birnbaum, 67; and Zuravel, 45. The Criminal Complaint alleges that since approximately May 2010, the three Defendants promoted investment opportunities as being offered by the Guggenheim family and by the “Guggenheim Fund” and “Guggenheim Bank.”
NOTE: The charges contained in the civil and criminal Complaints are merely allegations, and the Defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.
In all fairness to the Defendants, we should all await their explanations before rushing to judgment. However, there are these two nagging problems that seem to have gotten the federal prosecutors’ noses out of joint. First, Defendants Toumei, Birnbaum, and Zuravel have no known connection to the Guggenheim family. Second, there is no Guggenheim Fund or Guggenheim Bank.
The U.S. Attorney alleges that Toumei, who calls herself Lady Catarina Pietra Toumei, was the front-person who promoted the purported fraudulent investments. Perhaps angling for a role on Housewives of Sing Sing, Lady Toumei also told potential investors that she was a Countess. Although it does not seem that Defendants Birnbaum or Zuravel aspired to royal titles, the two allegedly participated in telephone calls or meetings with potential investors during which they claimed to be David B. Guggenheim and Vladimir Z. Guggenheim, respectively.
In furtherance of their alleged scheme, the three Defendants sent printed material to potential investors bearing unauthorized copies of the trademarked Guggenheim logo. They also used Internet website and e-mail addresses containing the Guggenheim name.
Diamonds, Bank Notes, Vodka, and Oil
The allegedly bogus investment opportunities promoted by the Defendants included:
• the sale of $1 billion in diamonds from “the private collection of the Guggenheim family”;
• the offering by “Messrs. Guggenheim” of multibillion dollar “cash-backed Bank Guarantees” through a number of European banks;
• a venture to distribute vodka with The Coca-Cola Company; and
• a $4 billion transaction involving the purchase of crude oil for a refinery in China that was supposedly owned by the Guggenheim family.
For a more detailed blow by blow of the fraud, see the civil complaint in Guggenheim Capital, LLC et al v. Catarina Pietra Toumei et al (SDNY, November 22, 2010, 2010cv08830) If convicted, each Defendant faces a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Bill Singer: Online Sleuth
In my tireless efforts to bring you the stories behind the story, I spend countless hours investigating the cases that I report. Well, okay, if you’re going to get technical with me, I don’t exactly spend all that much time — I generally do a few quick Internet searches. Which brings me back to my frequent complaint about how victims of fraud would often have done themselves a great service if they did some cursory online due diligence but, oh well, that’s an old saw that just doesn’t seem to cut it with too many folks.
Among the tidbits that my online meanderings revealed was this, found on the Bestsellingwriter.net website (typos/grammatical errors in the original):
As a Investment Relations Manager and Equity Research Specialist, Lady Catarina Toumei facilitates international business and commoditiy deals for a privately held fund, and private family. She is direct to sellers of financial instruments, art masterpieces, gems and stones. She is direct to buyers of oil, gold, platinum and technology.
In between investments, Catarina continues to write articles, press releases and proposals for a handful of individuals internationally.
Lady Catarina is very involved in philanthropic and humanitarian efforts.She has been bestowed the title “Lady,” by European Royalty, for her humanitarian efforts.
Previously Catarina was a reporter for CNN, as well as a news writer and reporter for KUSI-TV, NBC and the Travel Channel. Prior to that, Catarina ran national campaigns for: Freddie Mac, USAirways, Hilton Hotels and Las Vegas casinos (via McCann Erickson, Grey Advertising and Earle Palmer Brown Companies).
Catarina lives/works in both Manhattan and Rancho Santa Fe. Her hometowns are Santiago Chile and Washington, D.C. She has worked on the “Hill” and was a previous CNN reporter/journalist. She attended Masters Degrees programs were at GeorgetownUniversity and Fuller Seminary.
The Bestsellingwriter site seems to be a venture of Lady Toumei’s and the biography above was posted on September 23, 2010. A few things catch my eye. She facilitates international financial deals. Not sure exactly what that means but it certainly sounds impressive. In between all that facilitating, the Lady does some international writing — that’s nice too. Oddly, she doesn’t actually say that she is a real, honest-to-goodness “Lady,” but she does state that the title was bestowed upon her by European royalty for her humanitarian effforts. Finally, in addition to her CNN and other careers, she “attended” two Masters Degree programs — to her credit she doesn’t actually claim to have any Masters Degrees.
Intrigued by my initial discoveries about the mysterious Lady Toumei a/k/a the Countess, I then focused my investigative efforts on that most valuable of all online resources: Facebook. I found that the Countess has a lovely, absolutely lovely dahling, Facebook page. You can also see her photo, if you like to put faces to a story.
On Lady Toumei’s Facebook "Info" page, we learn the following about Her Highness:
Location: Rancho Santa Fe, CA
Birthday: September 12
Personal Information: I am a humanitarian and philanthropist.
As a career, I am an Investment Relations Manager.
Personal Interests: I love networking, meeting new people, and new business opportunities. I enjoy travel & luxury hotels, reading & writing, film and theatre, animals, running on the beach, nature, gourmet food & fine wine, Italian, French and Asian cuisine, 20th century art masters, opera, classical and alternative music, the races, boating, polo, spontaneity, laughter, and a positive attitude.
Frankly, I am in awe! I’m thinking about re-doing my own Facebook page . You see, I too am an internationally renowned philanthropist and humanitarian who likes running on the beach, spontaneity, and laughter.
Then there is that other thing, which I try not to make too big a deal about given my penchant for modesty. I am the Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler of The Royal Order of the Raccoons and the Grand Poobah of the Loyal Order of Buffalos. I try not to let those titles go to my head but, if you don’t mind, please don’t turn your back on me when you remove yourself from my royal presence.
Gotta tell ya, that “sextradebook” thing on Lady Toumei’s Facebook page sort of caught my attention. It just didn’t seem to fit in with all her high fallutin’ travel, cuisine, beach running, and polo stuff.
Again, I did a bit more investigating. What I found is that according to Lady Toumei’s website, the “sextradebook” appears to be the following:
Lady Catarina Pietra Toumei
“Sex Trade. Part Memoir. Part Fantasy.”
by Catarina Toumei
A young prostitute accused of murder, a Native American single mom, an African American showgirl, and a transvestite, are the main characters in this fictional thriller. Rave, Angel, Brandi and Jade meet in Las Vegas, where they struggle to escape dangers and live their dreams.Sex and the City meets C.S.I. when the LAPD, LV Metro PD, FBI investigate murder, porn rings, arson, counterfeiting, and human trafficking. Sex Trade is a fast-paced novel filled with crime, romance and the glitter of Las Vegas, New York, Los Angeles and Liechtenstein.
Okay. Yup. Uh uh. The glitter of Liechtenstein?
Truly, I hope that Lady Toumei is not exploiting the disgusting sex trade. I’d like to think that notwithstanding whatever trouble she may be in, that this was at least a genuine charity.
As such, how about we just end things here — for now, at least?UPDATE: On January 31st, Birnbaum and Zuravel were arrested in New York City. According to press reports, Zuravel, a former cab driver from Russia, claims that Birnbaum -- whom he describes as the scion of the Guggenheim family and a billionaire -- had given him permission to use the Guggenheim name.
On February 3rd, Toumei surrendered in San Diego, CA and was released subject to surrendering her passport and raising a $200,000 bond. She asserted that her parents would use their home as collateral for the bond.